What GE’s Departure Says About Transportation and Development Policy in Connecticut

GE's Fairfield campus | Image: Google MapsGE's Fairfield campus | Image: Google Maps

General Electric, a major employer in Connecticut, will leave Fairfield for greener pastures — but not literally. Citing “quality of life for employees [and] connections with the world,” the company announced it would move from the leafy southwestern Connecticut suburb to Boston’s Seaport District.

Some Connecticut lawmakers blamed the state’s tax policies for the company’s departure. But to suggest that lower taxes alone would have kept GE in Connecticut is to ignore the fact that the company is in the midst of a campaign to re-position itself as a player in the digital space. If the decision to relocate were based simply on taxes, it’s possible GE might have chosen another city in the tri-state region. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the total value of the incentives New York put on the table was larger than the $145 million offered by Massachusetts,” and Connecticut officials even “offered to purchase the $84 million Fairfield campus and relocate the company to Stamford.”

According to Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County, GE executives emphasized that “this is not about taxes.” McGee elaborated in an interview with the CT Mirror:

“Yes, taxes matter. Labor, all those things matter. But this story fundamentally is about innovation and a major company feeling that the innovation environment they need is in Boston and not in Fairfield, Connecticut,” McGee said. “That’s an important understanding.”

Pair that with the trend of companies relocating from far-flung office parks to more central urban locationsCT News Junkie columnist Susan Bigelow explains:

When GE moved to Fairfield from midtown Manhattan in 1974, companies leaving inner cities for the suburbs was the big trend. Fairfield seemed new, quiet, and safe compared to creaky, “dangerous,” and crowded New York. […] But now, companies like GE want to be where the action is, and that’s in the cities. Suburban office parks feel like relics, and GE is desperately trying to rebrand itself as a nimble technology company instead of an ancient, plodding mid-century conglomerate. They can do that better in Boston than in Fairfield.

But is there more to it than wanting to be in a bigger city surrounded by other innovators? Governor Malloy suggested in a statement that Connecticut’s transportation network was to share some of the blame:

Today’s decision is a clear signal that Connecticut must continue to adapt to a changing business climate.  Businesses care about transportation infrastructure, and we will continue to make new investments to create a more modern transportation future.

The governor might have also mentioned the fact that the only way to get to GE’s Fairfield headquarters is to drive. Located on a 68-acre plot near the Merritt Parkway, the GE campus is five miles from the closest Metro-North station, is not served by buses, and there are no sidewalks or bike lanes in the immediate area. This arrangement might have worked for prospective employees in 1974, but in 2016, if you’re a socially-mobile twenty-something with a computer science or engineering degree, chances are you’re going to choose to live and work in a city with quality transit where owning a car is optional.

While Connecticut has a growing tech hub in New Haven and Stamford received accolades from Google for its technological prowess earlier this month, neither city can compete with the connectivity of a major urban center like Boston, especially the Seaport area’s booming “Innovation District.” GE’s new Boston headquarters will be served by the MBTA’s BRT-lite Silver Line, the tech-enabled pop-up transit service Bridj, and will be within walking distance of the MBTA’s Red Line and several commuter rail lines at South Station, the largest rail hub in New England. It also doesn’t hurt that Logan International Airport is just across the harbor, easily accessible via water taxi or the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Connecticut has seen remarkable progress in its effort to build a stronger, more multimodal statewide transportation network in the last few years. But it’s not as if everybody in the Nutmeg State is on board. Take the backlash against the Transit Corridor Development Authority bill proposed last year. Or the critics of CTfastrak. Or Newington’s moratorium on transit-oriented development. Or the difficulty lawmakers have had trying to understand how modern congestion pricing systems work. The connection between transportation and the economy cannot be ignored; as long as the Land of Steady Habits resists change, the greater its risk of becoming an economic cul-de-sac.

2 Comments on "What GE’s Departure Says About Transportation and Development Policy in Connecticut"

  1. Ronald DeGray | January 19, 2016 at 3:29 pm |

    Connecting cities by passenger and freight rail should also be a priority. Amtrak in New England connects; Boston, New York, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield and points north to St. Albans, Vermont but not MONTREAL! Montreal and other cites in Canada are major transportation hubs for businesses (including tourism). Why is the New England/Montreal connection not going forward quickly? What can we do to expedite this service?

  2. Clark Morris | January 22, 2016 at 9:29 pm |

    Where will the hundreds of millions needed to make rail as fast as the automobile between major points and Montreal come from? It will take billions for high speed rail assuming that NIMBY objections can be overridden.

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